Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” which is a sentiment shared within the Gretna community.
Gretna High School and families within the community have welcomed and are currently hosting 20 foreign exchange students from Kiel, Germany, to broaden their horizons and give them a taste of life in the American Midwest, as well as expand the minds of Gretna students.
“This offers students an ability to expand their worldview beyond their borders,” GHS German instructor Kellye Deane said.
Deane said the exchange program takes place every two years, with German students visiting in the fall and GHS students set to make the trip over the Atlantic Ocean in June 2014. The visiting students experience daily life in an American family, as well as the United States’ education system and tour parts of Gretna and the surrounding areas. For instance, she said, German students will visit the GHS psychology classes as well as all four Gretna Public Schools’ elementary schools throughout the week to talk with students.
“We try and look at topics that happen in the world today,” she said. “That helps us get a better feel for the world around us.”
During their three-week stay in Gretna, students live with families in the community. While these families offer a day-to-day view of life in America throughout the week, Deane said the weekends are open to the families to treat the students.
“Sometimes the families take them far and wide,” she said.
The visiting students greatly appreciate this aspect of the trip.
“What I like a lot was the Old Market,” Tim Duesterhoeft said.
Duesterhoeft, 18, also traveled to Kansas City, Mo., for a trip to Worlds of Fun amusement park, which he said was wonderful.
“I like the malls,” Chantal Seiter said.
Seiter, 18, said she appreciates the many different sports stores she has found in Omaha and Des Moines.
The two students said they are both very happy their school offers this program, calling the trip a great opportunity to learn and mature through experiencing new things.
“I think it’s great, it’s different from Germany,” Seiter said.
One thing both students noted was the size of things in America, stating everything is bigger here.
“The cars, the houses,” Seiter said.
“The portions of food,” Duesterhoeft added with a smile.
Seiter said she and her classmates have also greatly appreciated the host families and all they have done to create a pleasant stay during their travels.
“I think they’ve put us in really good families,” she said.
For visiting English and German instructor Caroline Koehler, the Gretna community is an assurance during their stay.
“I know (the students) are in good hands,” she said.
Koehler, who is on her third trip to the United States, said the exchange program is a great benefit to her students as they learn new things.
“They mature a lot during this time, and this is something the parents notice,” she said.
She said having the students go abroad in a place unfamiliar to them gives them the opportunity to learn new things. For example, she said the students learn about the American education system.
“We don’t have as many school clubs,” she said. “So that’s interesting, everything is school-related here.”
She said the exchange program also keeps the students very busy outside the classroom with visits to local areas of importance, such as the Omaha World-Herald building and Morrill Hall in Lincoln.
Given the amount of activities the students do, Koehler said the trip is very popular in the northern coast city of Kiel, as 35 students applied to come along. Unfortunately, she said, the trip is limited to 20 students.
This year brought a new activity to the exchange through the opportunity for students to interview three German immigrants — Heinz Olk, Lew Miller and Henry Zimmerman — Monday morning.
Students broke into groups to interview the three immigrants, asking them questions on their life before immigrating, their immigration experience and life in Nebraska.
“And it’s all in German,” Koehler said, looking over the three groups. “This is incredible.”
Koehler said having the immigrants speak in German shows the value they still store in their native country. That commitment speaks to the students, and also makes an impact in the interview process.
“This is history you can grab; it’s history you can talk to,” she said.
The students will use the information gathered to create exhibits, which will be on display in the GHS library and will also be displayed when they return to Germany.
Koehler said she and her students appreciate the welcome Gretna has provided, with the families opening their homes to the students, the schools working alongside them and the overall community giving them a taste of “the good life.”
“The whole community is welcoming us,” she said. “These people make this happen.”
The visiting students leave for a four-day stint in Washington, D.C., to visit historical sites on Oct. 20, Koehler said, and will be ready and waiting to show GHS students a warm welcome next summer.